Does Trump Have the Right Impulse on Taiwan?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Here was Fallows’s first impulse upon hearing the news Friday that the U.S. president-elect phoned Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen:

The phone call was the first known occurrence of a U.S. president or president-elect speaking with a Taiwanese leader since Jimmy Carter (who, incidentally, hired Fallows as his top speechwriter). If you’re like me and need a primer on China-Taiwan-U.S. relations, my colleague David Graham has you covered. On the “strangeness” of that triad:

The U.S. maintains a strong “unofficial” relationship with Taiwan, including providing it with “defensive” weapons, while also refusing to recognize its independence and pressuring Taiwanese leaders not to upset a fragile but functional status quo. It’s the sort of fiction that is obvious to all involved, but on which diplomacy is built: All parties agree to believe in the fiction for the sake of getting along. […] Under the 1992 Consensus, another artful diplomatic fiction, both Taipei and Beijing agreed that there was only one China and agreed to disagree on which was legitimate, as well as maintaining two separate systems. During the Bush years, the U.S. said it would defend Taiwan in an attack, but Bush also pushed back on Taiwanese moves toward independence.

Isaac Stone Fish goes into greater historical detail in an Atlantic piece called “The Long Fall of Taiwan.” As far as reader input, here’s the most up-voted comment on David’s piece:

If Trump calling Tsai was a calculated move, I’m all for it. Taiwan is a wonderful free country that the rest of Asia should look to as an example. Taiwan should be on a pedestal, and the U.S. should have an open and proud alliance with them. China is moving in the right direction, but they are currently a disgrace to human decency and have a lot to learn from Taiwan.

If it’s a Being There moment, and Trump really had no idea what he was doing, it’s concerning.

That view from our reader basically aligns with the following email that Fallows just forwarded me, from a reader in Hong Kong:

Sorry for a long email, but here are some thoughts on Trump and Tsai’s phone call. TL;DR: China’s recent behavior and Taiwan’s growing vulnerability mean that, as incompetent as Trump is, his transgression may provide an opening for a long-overdue reconsideration of our Taiwan policy.

From the perspective of many of us in Hong Kong, it’s troubling to think of how Taiwanese society could end up if steps are not taken to ensure Taiwanese independence (or at least de facto independence). Look at how Beijing has used every tool at its disposal to stifle dissent and renege on its promises for democracy in Hong Kong:

the NPCSC decision regarding chief executive elections that sparked the 2014 Umbrella Movement; kidnapping booksellers and the larger story of how Hong Kong’s media have come under control of Mainland interests; interfering with institutional autonomy and academic freedom at local universities; first denying localist politicians the right to run in elections and then, with the most recent interpretation of the Basic law, creating a tool to eject (and possibly bankrupt) democratically elected lawmakers who are deemed to have been “insincere” or “insufficiently patriotic” in their oaths.

Put this beside the electoral sham that just occurred on the mainland, the recent destruction of much of Larung Gar, and the seizure of passports from Xinjiang residents. And there’s the ongoing campaign against NGOs and human rights lawyers on the mainland. All of this is contrary to American values and, to some degree, American interests.

And, of course, there’s very, very little that America can do about any of this, because all of the foregoing has occurred within China itself. We can, however, influence how things play out in Taiwan, and I think it’s high time for U.S. to show more explicit support of the vibrant, tolerant democracy that Taiwan has become. At a time when some East Asian states are turning toward authoritarianism (I’m thinking mostly of Thailand and the Philippines), I consider it morally and strategically critical to bolster our support for democracies in the region, even at the risk of further irritating China. I would prefer a well thought-out game plan for how to engage with China on new terms and slowly ratcheting up our support for Taipei with a long-term view toward recognizing Taiwan as an independent state.

I do not think Donald Trump takes a long-term view toward anything, and I very much doubt he has the skill set to handle the kind of shifts I would like to see. But without a wildcard like Trump in command, any significant reconsideration of our relationship with Taiwan would seem extremely unlikely. As [Fallows says in his new cover story], we’ve followed more or less the same policy for 37 years, and Taiwan is as vulnerable as ever.

In much of the media, the Chinese narrative—the unthinking and seemingly obligatory reference to Taiwan as a “renegade province,” the elevation of the One China Policy from political workaround to objective fact, sparse mention of the thousands of missiles pointed toward Taiwan or the fact that Taiwan has never been a part of the PRC—continues to dominate. China continues to bully Taiwan and exclude Taiwan from international organizations. I can’t see the U.S. mounting a meaningful challenge to any of this within the current framework of US-ROC (and US-PRC) relations. Odd as it is to admit this, I think Trump may have unknowingly provided the necessary shock to the system.

Why should the U.S. stand aside as the PRC continues to threaten Taiwan and meddle in Taiwanese affairs? If Xi and Ma can shake hands, Trump and Tsai can chat. A policy that forbids us from even acknowledging the legitimacy of our allies while allowing our competitors to bully them is clearly a flawed one.

No one within the establishment was ever going to acknowledge inadequacy of our Taiwan policy, and Trump’s transgression could spark an interesting discussion about how to move forward. I think everyone who cares about Taiwan and, more broadly, our policies in Asia would appreciate that debate. What concerns me is that rather using this episode as a launching point for these kinds of discussions, much of the media is simply framing this as another example of how incompetent Trump is. Fair enough—he is—but I think that focus obscures the larger issues at play.

Disagree? What do you think about Trump’s phone call or the status quo of U.S. relations in the region? If you live in China and/or Taiwan, spent a significant amount of time there, or are a notable expert on foreign policy in that region, please send us a note: hello@theatlantic.com. (Fallows wants to get a discussion thread going soon and thus detail his own thoughts, but he’s swamped at the moment.)

Until then, here’s one more reader—the only one in China to respond to the callout on our “Global Reactions to Trump’s Victory” series:

I live in Beijing and am a Chinese citizen. Some effects in Asia related to Trump’s presidency could be:

  1. The ditching of TPP (unless Obama could manage to get it passed in his lame-duck period) to the disappointment of countries like Japan and Singapore, who view TPP as a critical piece to counter the rise of China. In a totally different manner, China will be more than happy to see the containment attempt falling in tatters.
  2. Will the U.S. troops leave Asia? If that’s the case, countries like Japan—the arch enemy of China—could go nuclear for its security. So Beijing can hardly be called a winner as some has already concluded from the election victory of Trump. Anyway, few Chinese analysts expect a withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Japan and South Korea even under an isolationist president like Trump. But Tokyo and Seoul may, to their dislike, have to pay a certain amount of “protection fee.”
  3. Under President Trump, trade frictions between the U.S. and China may well rise. The understanding is that’ll be manageable, given the strong interdependence of the two economies.
  4. An isolationist U.S. will meddle less in the affairs of other countries. That U.S. will be more welcomed in Asia in general. It’s naive to think that a yearly human rights report will improve rights situations in other countries. Ultimately it’s up to the governments and their peoples to figure out how to conduct their own daily businesses.

So all in all, President Trump doesn’t portend the end of the world. After all, the world is changing with the rise of developing countries like China and India and the U.S. in decline. Why should the world cling to an international system that’s more than 70 years old?